NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Verdict’s In … The Headlines

Too much — way too much — ink and airwaves have lately been consumed with salacious stories involving teachers and teenagers in the most unseemly situations.

Consider two highly charged dramas unfolding before us. The first involves North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, the West Fargo High School English instructor accused of an extended affair with a 17-year-old student five years ago. After his case ended in a bizarre mistrial, he awaits a decision on whether he’ll be retried.

The other: the superintendent who’s sitting in the Ward County Jail. Lawmen arrested him at Sawyer Public School just days ago. He’s charged with corruption of a minor and child trafficking, accused by a Minot teenager who says they connected on the gay dating site Grindr.

Then throw in a couple more that pop up on top in Google: the Park River teacher accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl … the female Fargo paraprofessional who showed nude pictures to a student … the veteran English teacher in Mandan who wrote two of his students into graphic sex scenes in an Old West novel — then gave them autographed copies of the unpublished manuscript inscribed with thanks for the inspiration they provided.

What on earth is going on here?

Human nature and hormones don’t seem to have changed much over the years. Yet I don’t remember any horrors of this sort from my own distant high-school days. I wondered: Was my world-class teenage naivete affecting my memory … or late-middle-age faulty recall?

So, I’ve been asking around. While a few friends recall a vague wisp of gossip here and there, none — none! —  can come up with anything to rival the scandals that seem almost commonplace today.

So are today’s teens more tempting that the adolescents our own teachers wrangled back in our classroom days? Each generation does assume that they alone invented sex, but come on now. Lots of us grew up in the Sixties!

Are contemporary educators more befuddled by the hormone-infused fog of boys and girls exploring puberty? I sincerely doubt it. The line between adults in positions of authority and the vulnerable, impressionable minors with whom they’re entrusted was clear then, is clear now and will still be transparent as glass for generations to come.

Or has something else changed? Could it be the messenger who deserves much of the blame? Are today’s lurid headlines of schoolhouse scandal due to something as simple as news media that have relaxed their standards of what is (and isn’t) fit to print?

We do seem to be on the fast track to perdition … but I suspect the best explanation is that relentlessly sensational news coverage is making something that’s vanishingly rare seem almost everyday.

The West Fargo teacher’s trial occupied most of my local daily’s front pages for almost a week. Coverage contributed more than 3-square feet of photos above the fold: the accused wearing a troubled yet resolute expression, his wife in the witness chair, him cradling his head in his hands. The young woman who accused him was not shown or named because the local media, in a fit of decency, choose not to name victims in sex-related cases. (Good taste apparently does not preclude dropping lots of hints.)

Each day’s dispatch included a long, detailed account of what he said, what she said, what his wife said, what his former colleagues said, what the handwriting and cellphone experts said and what lots and lots of lawyers had to say. Some of it was pretty graphic.

Every scrap of this information was legitimately available to reporters and, through them, the entire community. Freedom of the press, we call it — the public’s right to know. Legally, it’s as bold and simple as the undeniable fact that court testimony is part of the public record.

But does being free to report this information mean that every member of our highly competitive, audience-craving Fourth Estate should share it?

Ross Collins of North Dakota State University’s communication department pointed me to a particularly apt passage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Several points seem shriekingly relevant. SPJ declares,“Journalists should

  • Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
  • Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

Good judgment calls for finding a delicate and ill-defined balance. Ignoring or suppressing stories like these is clearly not in the public’s interest. How much is too much? I’m ridiculously glad I’m not the editor or reporter making that call. But I do recognize tabloid-style sleaze when I see it. This is one of those lines that may only be understood after it’s been crossed.

We can certainly argue that parents, in particular, need to be aware of perils their children (very, very, very rarely) might face when they spend their days in school. We can debate whether unmasking bad actors could make our schools safer and healthier in the long run. We can even assert that the media storm might serve to caution potential Humbert Humberts darkly dreaming of Lolita.

Of course, justice must be served. Statutory rape is a sinister, serious, hideous crime. That we can trust such accusations will be investigated and resolved is essential. That this mess eventually came to trial is undeniable evidence that our legal system does strive to get it right.

Let’s skip down, though, to the bottom line. Here’s what the texture and tone of the heavy-breathing news coverage smacks of: Salacious, vulgar prurient interest.

Justice does not require the total destruction of the teacher who stands accused. Whether he’s found guilty or not guilty or, as now seems most likely, left forever in limbo … his future as a dedicated, charismatic, effective high school teacher is toast.

Nor does the brave young college student who brought charges against Mr. Chips deserve the lingering clouds of innuendo that surround her. Whatever the facts from 2009, her sincere need to seek justice doesn’t warrant how she’s being characterized in the tabloid-worthy hive-mind: the intimation that she must be the particular kind of perhaps-delusional Jezebel summed up by that damning phrase, “a woman scorned.”

Mistrial or not, the verdict has been rendered — not by judge and jury, but by the irresistible, faceless vigilante force that we call “journalism.” Right or wrong, it is a life sentence.


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